Century-old artefacts uncovered at Mawson’s Huts

More than a century after they were left behind, Douglas Mawson’s hard worn leather boots still sit on the shelf where he left them. His pillow still lies on his bunk. Old jumpers and balaclavas and other detritus lie undisturbed on the floor and hang from the bunks of the hut that bears his name.

An expedition to Australia’s first Antarctic outpost this summer uncovered these and a trove of other artefacts from the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, for the first time in more than a century.

With the support of the Australian Antarctic Division, the Mawson’s Huts Foundation has been working since the mid-1990s to preserve the huts built by Sir Douglas Mawson and his men at Cape Denison. Situated 1500km south of Hobart, it’s probably one of the most remote conservation projects ever carried out. The six-person party was transported from Hobart by the French Antarctic vessel L'Astrolabe, and stayed in a field camp while working on the hut for six weeks over December and January (2015–16).

Building on the work of previous conservation efforts, the field party managed to remove most of the snow and ice remaining inside Main Hut. In doing so, they revealed an astonishing array of artefacts; among them a complete set of clothing belonging to Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis, who lost his life in Antarctica.

The clothing was left washed and neatly folded in the Mangetograph House, a small wooden structure several hundred metres from Main Hut. Clothing labels and a tailor’s receipt confirmed them to have been Ninnis’ — who was nicknamed ‘Cherub'. He was one of the most popular members of the expedition until his untimely death, when his sled broke through a crevasse while on exploratory trip with Mawson and Swiss skiing champion Xavier Metrz. Mertz also lost his life on the return voyage and it was Mawson alone who made it back to Cape Denison after an epic journey of survival against the odds (Australian Antarctic Magazine 22: 4–7, 2012).

Mawson chose the site for the huts on a rare windless day, but later cursed his luck when it turned out to be the windiest place on earth at sea level. Main Hut is one of four buildings surviving from Mawson’s time: the Magnetograph House remains in almost original condition while the Transit Hut (used for astronomical observations), and the Absolute Magnetic Hut, remain as standing ruins. The fact Main Hut survives at all is somewhat astounding considering the simplicity of its Baltic pine structure and its location.

In addition to Ninnis’ clothing, Main Hut gave up a trove of personal effects chipped delicately from the ice. There were old woollen jumpers in various states of repair and even a pair of trousers hanging from a hook. There were bottles and boxes of matches, the long-lost legs of the expedition’s dining table, and the brooms used to sweep the floor at night. A pair of skuas that had apparently made the hut their home, were found entombed in the ice. One of Mawson’s old sled dogs, ‘Grandmother', was moved from the hut’s verandah area to a temporary home under Mawson’s bunk, where the temperature is more stable year-round. The dog was recovered from the polar plateau around seven kilometres inland from the hut in 1997, still curled up on the snow where it had died during a prolonged blizzard.

The restoration of the Main Hut has followed three broad themes since the first major conservation expedition in 1997. The first task facing the Mawson’s Huts Foundation was stabilisation of the structural fabric of the building. The second was to overclad the hut’s roof, which had become perilously thin due to decades of wind-blown ice. Finally, there was the removal of tonnes of snow and ice from inside the hut; the focus of the 2015–16 expedition.

Throughout the living section and the workshop of the hut there remained around 30cm of snow and ice build-up over the floor; even deeper in areas like the hut’s kitchen. Making the task even trickier was the presence of valuable artefacts scattered randomly through the strata all the way down to floor level. It made for slow and arduous work, chipping and clearing and removing the ice from the hut. But the reward for the effort was immense for the team members. By the end of the expedition the floor of both the living and workshop sections were largely free of snow and ice. For the first time since Mawson’s men left, it was possible to appreciate the interior of the hut as it would have looked back in 1914. The transformation was astonishing, and a major milestone in the long-running project.

The team chosen for the expedition was the most experienced ever assembled for conservation works on Mawson’s Huts. Between the six members there was a combined experience of 37 expeditions to the continent. The team was led by Marty Passingham — a heritage carpenter and helicopter pilot with extensive Antarctic experience. There were three materials conservators, Dr Ian Godfrey, Michelle Berry and Peter Maxwell. First-timer, Hobart general practitioner Dr Sally Hildred, acted as the expedition’s doctor, and I took leave from my day job at The Mercury newspaper to take photos, write stories, do the weather observations and run the communications equipment.

The environment around Commonwealth Bay has changed significantly in recent years due to the presence of iceberg B09B. Grounded at the western edge of the bay, fast ice has built inshore of the berg, making access more difficult. This season we deployed from helicopters from the sea ice edge, some 20 nautical miles away. We enjoyed good fortune not normally bestowed on those who venture into the ‘Home of the Blizzard’. Our transit across the Southern Ocean was unnaturally smooth and our deployment from L'Astrolabe fast and faultless. The usual cycle of blizzards were also absent, allowing us to make exceptional progress during our six-week stay.

Like with any old building, there is a lot of work still to be done to preserve Main Hut into the future. Future conservation expeditions are expected to perform maintenance and monitoring of the hut’s internal environment. There is still snow and ice in many of the less accessible areas of the hut and there remains important artefacts still unseen within. With continued attention the future of this ‘Heroic Era’ building should be assured well into its second century.

David Killick